Life, on his own terms

At Tyagaraja's samadhi at Tiruvaiyaru where Subbier is in front of GNB. Photo Special Arrangement  

“The honour which The Music Academy has done me belongs to my father and teacher Vidwan Venkatesa Iyer and to Vidwan Pudukottai Dakshinamurthi Pillai…” Sangita Kalanidhi-designate Alathur Sivasubramania Iyer began his presidential address on this note. The year was 1964 and he was 48. Alathur Subbier (1916-65), as the vidwan was popularly known in the music field, was the only son of Alathur Venkatesa Iyer. He was a worthy torchbearer of the Alathur bani, a style that stood out for the architectural beauty of the compositions, energetic rendition and laya intricacies.

Continuing, Subbier said, “Next, I have to mention that it is because of the affection and good wishes of my elder (brother), Sri Srinivasa Iyer…with whom I have been inseparably associated in my musical career, that I am able to occupy today this chair.”

True. There was never a concert that Subbier performed without Srinivasa Iyer. In 1922, eleven-year-old Srinivasan was brought home to sing before Venkatesa Iyer and he sang his way into the heart of the stentorian musician. Srinivasan’s family was in dire circumstances and for all practical purposes, he was adopted by the Alathur household.

Ninety-five-year-old Mahalakshmi, wife of Subbier, recalls, “My father-in-law was fond of Srinivasa Iyer, even more than of his own son. The beauty was that my husband did not mind at all.”

Venkatesa Iyer paired Srinivasan with his son Sivasubramaniam and put the boys through a rigorous schedule. An accomplished laya vidwan, he laid emphasis on that aspect in his training. Singing kalpanaswaras for alankarams and learning rhythmically-challenging Tiruppugazh were part of their routine.

Laya wizard Pudukottai Dakshinamurthy Pillai heard them sing and applauded, “ Gandharva gaanama irukku, let them always sing together as the Alathur Brothers.”

And that was how one of the most marvellous singing duos in Carnatic music came about. They sang in one voice with team spirit and without ego. Even off the concert platform, they were supportive of each other.

Their repertoire was vast and varied. Rasikas eagerly awaited their rendition of kritis such as ‘Koniyadina’ and ‘E Papamu’ with their numerous sangatis, the rarely heard ‘Karuvelpulu’ in Kalyani and ‘Chandrasekhara Isha.’ Ghana ragas such as Thodi, Bhairavi, Sankarabharanam and Khambodi were mostly handled by Subbier and rakti ragas such as Yadukula Khambodi and Nayaki by Srinivasa Iyer. It was an arrangement that the brothers had worked out between themselves. Their kalpanaswaras often had challenging patterns that took off from and landed on different places in the tala, for their package of surprises included choosing unconventional places in the song for this creative exercise. Ragam Tanam Pallavis were their forte. The pallavis, presented in a variety of talas and nadais, ranged from difficult to exacting.

Accompanying them would be percussion vidwans such as Dakshinamurthy Pillai, Palani Subramania Pillai and Palghat Mani Iyer. Kutcheries sometimes came with two or even three tani avarthanams.

Subbier was as dynamic off stage as he was on it. In 1951, he took the initiative of bringing electricity to the Alathur village. In 1959, he took over as secretary of the Tyaga Brahma Mahotsava Sabha, which conducted the Tyagaraja Aradhana at Tiruvaiyaru. At this point in time, C.V. Rajagopalachariar, an office-bearer of the Bangalore Nagarathnamma Trust, which owned the samadhi land, filed a suit against the sabha restraining it from conducting the utsavam in front of the samadhi. Subbier himself argued the case on behalf of the sabha and won. During his tenure, he conducted the aradhana with great efficiency. A significant contribution of his was arranging through AIR, the direct relay of concerts that took place at Tiruvaiyaru.

Forthright, Subbier never hesitated to speak his mind. Alathur Tyagarajan shares, “One aradhana celebration, he had Sheik Chinna Moulana head the night ceremonial procession of Tyagaraja’s portrait, countering any protest voiced against the vidwan’s religion.”

On another occasion, during a concert of the brothers in Bombay, a leading vidwan got up to leave after the first song and Subbier immediately commenced, “Mariyadagadayya!” (Tyagaraja’s composition in Bhairavam. The phrase translates as “This is not becoming of you!”) The embarrassed vidwan immediately sat down.

He was also gregarious and fun-loving. Alathur Venkatraman, the younger son of Subbier, recalls, “Once my father egged on Palghat Raghu and K.V. Narayanaswamy to play a game of cards. He then slipped out, only to mischievously bring in Palghat Mani Iyer who disapproved of such activities. Raghu and KVN squirmed in discomfiture!”

But what truly made Subbier special was his heart of gold. On a hot summer day, he found his friend struggling to find a rickshaw to carry some flower pots that had been purchased. Subbier cheerfully carried them on his head to his friend’s house.

On the professional front too, while he sometimes delighted in challenging his accompanists, he never failed to give credit where it was due. It is a matter of record that he proposed Lalgudi Jayaraman’s name for the Sangita Kalanidhi even before he was honoured with it.

Thus, Subbier strode through life, predominantly on his own terms. He even composed music for a couple of films. In one of them, ‘Raja Mukthi’ (1948) he introduced M.L. Vasanthakumari as a playback artist. Unexpectedly, his health started declining rapidly in early 1965. The diagnosis was an enlarged heart. On June 23, 1965, the brothers gave a Tiruppugazh concert at the Arunagirinathar Vizha in Thillai Nagar, Tiruchi. One of the songs that Subbier chose for elaboration was ‘Paadi madi nadi…’ A verse in it runs thus, ‘Kaalan ennai anugamal unn thirukaalil vazhipada…’ (Allow me to worship at your feet so that the Lord of Death doesn’t approach me).” Subbier, maybe with a premonition of his end, sang this line repeatedly. Many in the audience were moved to tears. The next day he arrived at Madras for his treatment. But it was of no use.

Subbier told his son Tyagarajan that he had erred in not teaching him and his brother music, for they were immensely gifted and that he would make up for it if he survived. But he did not. Subbier passed away in the afternoon of June 28. He was only 49. In accordance with his last wish, he was cremated on the banks of the Cauvery. Despite his short life, he left behind a veritable reference library of music.

The lineage of Subbier is represented by his sons, Alathur Tyagarajan and Alathur Venkatraman. The latter was subsequently trained by Srinivasa Iyer and is a creditable vocalist. Subbier’s grandson Alathur Rajaganesh and great-grandsons Anirudh Athreya and K.S. Venkataramanan are popular percussion artists in the field today. The Universe, it would seem, stepped in to address Subbier’s regret of not having fostered his legacy.

Celebration at Srirangam

The birth centenary of Alathur Sivasubramania Iyer and Alathur Brothers Day (Alathur Sivasubramania Iyer and Alathur Srinivasa Iyer) disciples of Alathur Venkatesa Iyer, will be celebrated on July 11 and 12, at Sri Sringeri Vidya Bharathi Bhavanam, Amma Mandapam Road, Srirangam, Tiruchi. – 620006. The members of the Alathur family have organised the event. The programme will include concerts and tributes to Alathur Subbier and Alathur Brothers by senior musicians such as Dr. T.K. Murthy, J. Venkataraman (disciple of Alathur Venkatesa Iyer), T.V. Sankaranarayanan and Tiruchi R. Thayumanavan. The family is planning to organise celebrations in Chennai early next year.

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Printable version | Jun 19, 2021 8:26:17 PM |

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